Heavy Metal is Not Just ‘Noise’

A while back, I wrote a blog post entitled ‘heavy metal is not just shouty music’ wherein I discussed the fact that metal vocalists don’t just growl, shout and swear. This was underlined by focusing on a handful of vocalists within the genre who can really sing. And when I say that they can sing, I really mean it. Don’t believe me? Check out my post here and tell me I’m wrong.

Today, I try to confront that other annoying and completely inaccurate dismissive phrase that hear all too often: ‘heavy metal is just noise’. As I admit in my previous post, there are many bands and a whole subgenre dedicated specifically to creating noise. But this doesn’t mean that all heavy metal can be discarded as such. Far from it. And whilst it’s not the most original of topics, this is the post, via several bands and songs that I love, where I try to prove exactly why that is.

To begin gently, lets take a look at the melodic metal subgenre as a whole. If ever there was a section of the metal community that disproves the ‘noise’ argument, it’s this. With a focus on melody and big memorable choruses, melodic metal can really scratch that itch for something more accessible and, if I can say it, good solid fun. That’s not to say that the music can’t be heavy; indeed there is still plenty of bite and crunch within the compositions, setting it apart from it’s more mainstream cousin, the melodic rock scene.

A few of my personal favourites and good examples include Vanishing Point and Serenity. Vanishing Point have been a favourite since the turn of the millennium and feature one of my favourite vocalists in metal, Silvio Massaro. They also know how to blend melody with proper heaviness, creating a wonderfully rewarding sonic experience.

serenity warThe latter, Serenity, are another brilliant example of the sub genre, juxtaposing memorable songwriting with anthemic choruses and an over-the-top grandiose bombast that is a pure joy to listen to. Their dual male/female vocal approach is just the icing on the cake.

Black metal is another subgenre that’s often dismissed as an evil noise. The truth of this statement however depends upon your viewpoint and attitude towards this style of music. There are those who subscribe to the view that black metal only refers to those bands that shun modern production and anything resembling accessibility, instead favouring lo-fi productions and a rawness that can be a little hard to get into. It’s all about the ‘feel’ of the record and an authentically malignant sound rather than anything else. This, I grant you, can be rather impenetrable and it’s not always to my personal taste either.

However, there’s another school of thought within black metal circles. It doesn’t shun modernity, grandiosity and big production values. Sure, the music is still heavy as hell and not for everyone. But, if you give it time and listen properly, theres more to the music than a noisy mess.

cof duskTo illustrate the point, take this track for example. It is by Cradle Of Filth and was the very first track to get me into the realm of extreme metal in the first place. I’d heard and liked other songs by the band but ‘Funeral In Carpathia’ represented that eureka moment where my whole body became covered in goosebumps. The opening is brutal, fast and relentless, topped off by some of the most extreme vocals imaginable. But listen more carefully. There’s a subtle beauty to the keyboards that softens the music ever so slightly and gives it a more majestic feel than might be apparent on a first, cursory listen. Then there’s the mid-track melodic breakdown. It is stunning, beautiful, elegant and very memorable. It was this section of the song that drew me in for repeated listens and the more I listened, the better the entire song became.

For all its evil and savage intent, the genre of black metal is littered with other similar examples. Naturally, Dimmu Borgir provide many, as do the sadly defunct Dissection for another good example. Check out these samples to see what I mean.

And now onto the genre and band that was the catalyst for this whole post: death metal and more specifically, Nile. My partner has pretty broad tastes and enjoys some metal. ‘But Nile is just noise’ she said to me one afternoon. I’m sorry, say what?!

I will accede to the argument that this US death metal band is something of an acquired taste. It is brutal, intense and extreme of course. But if you’re prepared to listen, I’m willing to bet you’ll admit to being wrong about the ‘noise’ comment. But first, let me ease you in more gently.

As with the black metal subgenre, death metal can be split into several further sub-subgenres if one can use that terminology. Melodic death metal sits at the fringes and would be the easiest way in to what can be a pretty unforgiving style of music. It was my way in to the scene and remains of great interest to me. Perhaps, if you think of it as melodic metal with heavier guitars and growled vocals, it might seem a bit more accessible. Try this track from In Flames as a starter for ten and focus on the guitar harmonies rather than the more extreme elements for example.

Then there are those bands that fall into a group that are perhaps best described as less technical but more intent on straight forward bludgeoning intensity. Take a band like Obituary for example. The heaviness may be as subtle as a brick wall, but check out this track and tell me that the groove contained within it is not infectious. If you get through the entire track without nodding your head or tapping your foot, I think you might be a lost cause!

nileSo, Nile. Where do I start? What song do I pick? Well, after much consideration, I’ve chosen the title track from the band’s turn of the millennium release, ‘Black Seeds Of Vengeance’. The opening minute or two is pretty intense and on first listen may appear to be an impenetrable wall of noise. However, take a deep breath and listen again. The vocals are, arguably not meant to be understood, at least not in their entirety. Instead, think of them as another instrument in the band’s considerable armoury. An extra bass guitar perhaps, whatever works for you, but one that creates much of the deliberately ominous intent.

Listen to the drumming too. It is amazingly powerful and intense, creating a sonic battery, the sheer technicality of which is mind-blowing. The guitar riffs are fast, technical and demonstrate an impressive fretboard dexterity, particularly when the solos kick in. This is not just noise, it is a finely-honed and expertly executed piece of musicianship. At this point, little pleasure may be derived, but you cannot argue against the musicianship.

Then, as the song reaches its climax, it explodes into a more quasi-melodic conclusion, where atmosphere takes over and instead of an unrelenting tumult, you’re greeted with a much more groovy and accessible section of music. The drums are insane, the menacing intent remains but with the inclusion of the mantra-like groove and the foreboding keyboards, it all adds up to one hell of a piece of music. And it’s only about three-and-a-half minutes long.

For this post to work, it requires an open mind. If you’re prepared to give me this and suspend your prejudices for a few minutes, you might admit that maybe, just maybe, you were wrong to dismiss this music as ‘noise’.

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